Baltimore and Cleveland can both call themselves NFL cities again beginning this weekend, so maybe it’s time to cancel the reservations in hell being held for everybody behind the Colts’ sneaky exit. Bob Irsay has probably already taken his seat down under. Even in death, the former owner gets all the credit for the most reviled franchise shift in the annals of sport, so the little people who did all his dirty work have gone largely ignored. Like the crew of frat boys from College Park.
“I moved the Baltimore Colts,” laughs Mark Updegrove, one of Irsay’s unheralded, and unrepentant, cohorts. “I have a place in football history.”
And what a place it is. Updegrove, now an advertising executive in Los Angeles, was a senior at the University of Maryland the snowy afternoon in late March 1984 when the phone in his Sigma Chi house rang with the call that would give him and many of his Greek brothers their low-profile infamy. On the other end of the line, a manager with Mayflower Transit asked if anybody wanted to work for the moving company that night. There was room for every able-bodied brother.
Members of that fraternity occasionally pulled shifts with Mayflower to defray pizza and beer costs, but from the start, this job was different. The company had never asked the kids to help with midweek moves before; they were students, after all. No specifics about the chore were given, either. The manager would only impart that they should be at the regional office after sundown and wouldn’t get off until sunup. Oh, and one more thing: All takers would be paid $21 an hour—or three times the normal rate—for this job only.
About 18 brothers signed on, none more enthusiastically than Updegrove. “When he said, ‘triple overtime,’” Updegrove says, “classes just were no longer of consequence.”
Others, because of the nasty weather and typical collegiate obligations, begged off.
“The money sounded great, but I had been planning a party that night, so I couldn’t go along,” recalls Scott Werber of Rockville, a Sigma Chi legend known as Gumby back in the day. “I still hear about what I missed, but at the time, I didn’t know what I was missing.”
Updegrove and those who took the bait, meanwhile, didn’t know what they were getting into. When they showed up at the Mayflower offices that evening, a bus was waiting, with a crew of hardened full-time movers already on board. The college kids thought the covert ambience meant this was some type of FBI or military hauling. But, just before departure, a foreman boarded and gave everybody the skinny.
“You’ve all heard the rumors by now that the Baltimore Colts are going to move,” he barked. “Well, the rumors are true. And you’re moving ’em!”
By the time it went down, the transfer was hardly unexpected, though still quite sad. The NFL had relocated the franchise to Baltimore from Dallas after the 1952 season, and the team had quickly begun forging a bond with the locals the old-fashioned way: by winning. From 1957 through 1970, the Colts didn’t have a losing season. The team took three NFL championships before the merger with the AFL and, after it, a Super Bowl title in 1971. Most sports historians call the 1958 NFL title game, in which the Colts beat the Giants in overtime—in what was then the most-watched television program of all time—the game that turned pro football into America’s real pastime.
But the team’s grip on the community had been loosening ever since 1972, when Irsay, then the new owner of the Los Angeles Rams, pulled off a bizarre trade of franchises with the Colts’ original owner, Baltimore native Carroll Rosenbloom. Irsay, a vagabond born in Chicago, had no Baltimore ties. He didn’t wait long to start baiting then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer with threats of moving the team if he didn’t get financial concessions. Irsay didn’t have trouble finding municipalities willing to accommodate him. In August 1979, he helicoptered into the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., where more than 50,000 townies had shown up at a hurriedly planned “Colts Fever” rally aimed at convincing him to move the team there. Phoenix was also in the running, and Indianapolis, even without its own team, built a huge indoor stadium, just in case.
Under Irsay, the Colts grew as feeble as they had once been proud, and the homefolks weren’t as smitten during the Art Schlichter era as they were during Johnny U’s day. Between 1978 and 1982, the Colts had a 19-53-1 record, and Memorial Stadium became the most depressing venue in the league. Everything blew up after the 1982 season, when golden boy John Elway of Stanford told everybody with a pen and paper or a microphone that if the Colts used the first pick in the draft on him, he’d go play baseball with the New York Yankees. Colts general manager Ernie Accorsi drafted him anyway. But then Irsay put on the GM’s hat and, without Accorsi’s blessing, traded the rights to Elway to Denver for QB Mark Hermann, offensive lineman Chris Hinton, and a draft pick that would turn out to be guard Ron Solt. The end was coming….
The frat boys on the bus, being good sports fans, weren’t nearly as surprised by the news that the Colts were moving as they were by the revelation that they’d be playing a role in the transfer. When the bus pulled into the team’s training compound in Owings Mills, Md., orders were given to pack up everything but the goal posts. Soon enough, the temps were swimming in memorabilia from the Colts’ glory days. And loving it.
“One of my jobs was to break down the trophy case,” recalls Updegrove. “So I’m holding these championship trophies and thinking about how great this team really was. Right away it hit me that leaving town in secret in the middle of the night just wasn’t right for the Colts’ fans, that what Irsay was doing was the ultimate sissy move. I never saw him that night, and I don’t know anybody who did. But for a college kid, it was a bizarre thing to be a part of.”
Many of the frat brothers treated the move as a shopping expedition, at least early on. “Most of this stuff we were supposed to pack said ‘Baltimore Colts’ on it, so we didn’t think they’d have much use for it anymore,” says Hal Stein, a brother now living in the Richmond area. “For me, it was like, one in the box, and one in my pants.” Updegrove says he sported a hat that legendary Colts coach Weeb Ewbank once wore, and took a shine to some practice wear belonging to Schlichter, a notoriously self-destructive gambler. Both Updegrove and Stein remember another Sigma Chi member who concentrated his thievery on players’ shampoos and deodorants. As the night wore on, the frat boys were all getting thicker and thicker of body.
The folks in charge of the move took notice: Several hours into the job, Mayflower management stopped the move and called everybody into a conference room and told them they’d have 10 minutes to turn over everything that had been stolen, no questions asked. Anybody caught thieving after the amnesty period was subject to prosecution.
“When we’re getting this ultimatum, all of us temps are acting appalled, like, ‘What? No way! What kind of person would do that?’” Updegrove says. “But then the bosses leave the room, and all these guys start ripping their clothes off and making this huge pile of Colts jerseys and sweat pants and equipment and everything that had been taken. The Mayflower lifers we worked with all looked like they just got out of prison, but they hadn’t stolen a thing. All my guys from Sigma Chi, well, we looked like Michelin Men. I remember watching a friend of mine peel off more layers than an onion, and this one lifer just started shaking his head with this look of utter disgust at all of us. ‘That boy’s got shoulder pads on! And he’s got coach’s pants on! Look at him!’ That was my favorite moment of the whole move.”
Word had slipped out to mainstream Baltimore that Mayflower vans were in Owings Mills, so angry fans started showing up and congregating outside the fences, well within range to hit the movers with vile verbiage and, much worse, snowballs. Their abuse only quickened the pace of the move. Around sunrise, with the vans locked and loaded, the Sigma Chi brothers were told that another Mayflower crew was waiting in Indianapolis to do the unloading. So they got back on the bus and headed for College Park.
“When I got back to my room, all the morning news programs on TV were talking about the Colts,” Updegrove says. “So here I am, groggy and sleep-deprived, watching all these old black-and-white clips of Johnny U and Raymond Berry and Tom Matte and Earl Morrall in slow motion. That gave me pause for a few seconds, like, ‘What have I done?’”
Did the remorse last? “Oh, no,” he says. “Every year I’ll be watching some network do a program like ‘Football’s Most Infamous Moments,’ and I’ll see a Mayflower moving van inching out of the Colts compound. And I think, ‘I was there!’ And I beam with pride. My only regret is that I didn’t hock Weeb’s lid. What can I say? I’m an Eagles fan.”
Stein, likewise, harbors no regrets. He has, however, held on to the football he deflated during the move and stuffed into his trousers.
Some postscripts: Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, clearly a student of the Colts move, used Irsay-like covert tactics while stealing the Browns from Cleveland. Earlier this year, the Maryland legislature appropriated money to demolish Memorial Stadium. Art Schlichter, already incarcerated for gambling offenses, was arrested yet again last week, this time in his cell in an Indiana prison, after allegedly making 107 collect calls from the inmate telephone to a Las Vegas bookie over a one-month period to place what the authorities called “heavy bets” on football and hockey games. Denver quietly cut John Elway on Sunday, officially ending his career. Finally, Mayflower Transit, founded in 1927 in Indianapolis by a Hoosier family, was taken over by an out-of-state investment group in March 1995. After assuming control, the new owners moved the company’s headquarters to St. Louis.—Dave McKenna